How to tell if your eggs are really fresh

How do you know if your eggs are fresh or bad? Eggs are like yogurt…you shrug your shoulders and trust the manufacturers expiration date.  Whether your recipe is a heritage, classic or of your own invention, you need fresh eggs to achieve the desired result.

Here is an easy and accurate method to test if your “fresh” eggs are really fresh. When I did this to my newly purchased over priced name brand and within date eggs, they nearly all stood on end!

Fresh? Nope, they went back to the store!

egg test

Everything you wanted to know about Dutch ovens (but were afraid of having nightmares)

No modern alloy metal or non stick pan can hold a candle to old fashioned cast iron cookware

2nd in a series on cast iron cooking-

I guess the best place to start this blog is to describe what a Dutch oven is and what it’s used for. Since many folks have little knowledge of the Dutch oven let’s then assume you don’t own one.

If you do own one and never use it, then kick out the plant growing in it and give it a good washing. After it regains some of its original self esteem, re season it using the method I describe in an earlier post in this blog called “Cast iron cookware, the cooks holy grail.”

First, lets let’s describe what Dutch oven is.

Think of a heavy cast iron stock pot with a cast iron lid and you’re pretty close to what it looks like.

Q.  Why do some have legs, others none and some have lids with raised rims on them and others not?

A.  That’s because there are ‘indoor’ or flat surface and outdoor Dutch ovens.

Q.  How does a Dutch oven work?

A.   Think of your oven at home. It is a self contained total surround cooking area. A Dutch oven works in a similar fashion. Being able to have its bottom, sides and top radiating heat from all places at once, the food inside is cooked from all directions in an equal temperature. Thus the reason it is called an oven.

Note the legs, lid dimples, raised lid rim to hold hot coals and the handle on this outdoor Dutch oven.

Legs are handy if you’re cooking outdoors on an open fire. Hot coals can be bunched up underneath and having three stubby legs gives it a pretty solid stance on a not so level surface. Outdoor style Dutch ovens usually have a lid with a raised lip on it. That one inch lip allows you to place hot coals on its lid without the coals falling back into the fire or the insides when you lift the lid to check on the food inside.        The coals underneath and on those placed on its top is why the Dutch oven is called an oven and not a pot. It is one of the few true baking tools that don’t need an oven. (Cast iron skillets with a lid can bake but need to be placed inside an oven for even heating).

An outdoor oven should not be used indoors. The legs will prevent the bottom from being heated if you have it on top of an electric stove. On a gas stove, the burner grate will get in the way of the legs and it can tip causing spills.

Typical flat bottomed indoor Dutch oven with rounded lid. Note the handles are made to accept a hanger.

The indoor or flat surface Dutch ovens have no legs. This style can also be used as an outdoor oven if you’re careful in placing it on the coals. Many indoor and outdoor Dutch ovens have tabs on the rim so the oven can be hung over an open fire using a tripod stand as shown below. Since an indoor Dutch oven can be placed within a gas or an electric stoves oven, there is no need for a lid with a raised lid to hold hot coals. Older manufactured Dutch ovens had lids with dimples in the inside of them. This allowed for self basting. Many newer Dutch ovens no longer have these.  😥


Quality;

Before purchasing your Dutch oven, read the earlier post here on cast iron cookware.

Then, before throwing your cash or credit card at the sales clerk inspect the thing! Look for loose fitting lids, or lids that are not completely flush with the edge of the pot section.

Check for uneven wall and lid thickness. An uneven casting will not cook evenly. Most good ovens have a wire bail handle attached to the pot section and a loop handle on the lid for easy lifting. Many newer ovens no longer have these, forget it and look for another one that does. The finish should not be extremely rough, especially on the inside and free of any scaling. All the casting seams should be ground smooth without any sharp edges.

Lastly, examine the origin of the Dutch oven. Foreign imports for the most part, use a lower quality of cast iron and have more defects than domestic ones. In my post on cast iron cookware, I go into this in more detail, I recommend you read it. I highly recommend you search for all of your cast iron cookware including your Dutch oven, at antique dealers, estate sales, yard sales, rummage sales … anywhere that you have the possibility of finding older American made cast iron cookware. While visiting my daughter in AZ this summer, I stopped at a number of “old west thrift stores” and “miscellaneous vintage” roadside sales places. There I found incredible deals on some of the finest cookware American foundry’s ever produced. I Found names like Griswold, Miami, Wagner Ware, Wapak, Herters, G Barthel Norma, Lesauveur Rechaud Pigeon, Scranton Stove Works, Lodge, Western foundry and Stover. Any of these cast iron cookware implements would be a honor to own and cook with.

Accessories

OK, you now own and / or have re seasoned you your cast iron cookware. What else do you need to compliment it?

Gloves. Many folks go and buy leather work gloves. I never recommend leather for this reason alone. Once leather gets heated to a certain point, it transfers that scalding heat quickly to your skin.

I one was at a ‘Chefs cook off’ to help raise funds for a local battered women’s shelter. (Note; You western men know how a woman is to be treated so get off your high horse and start acting like it!)

But I digress. The fellow Trail cook next to me started making fun of my yellow Kevlar cooking gloves. He held up his gauntlet style thick leather welding gloves and proudly told me, “These is what a real man uses to cook with, not them sissy city thangs you got there.”

Now I am the furthest looking thing from being a sissy. 6’2”, nice western bow mustache, 270 pounds and an evil eye that at a cutting glance can punch new holes in leather belts when needed.  So naturally my ire was hefted a bit.

So I told him, “Hey my friend, let’s make a wager, Ten dollars says I can hold onto my hot frying skillet here for a longer time wearin’ my gloves that you can wearin’ yours.”

“Ten? Make that fifty an’ you got yourself a bet!”

Not two minutes later he set his down, ripped off his leather glove and wrapped his hand around a ice cold soda can from his cooler. I not only continued to hold onto my skillet but moved my hand from the handle to the actual sides of the pan and held it up to him while smiling. He got the idea, I got fifty bucks!

Another thing you need is a lid lifter. Anyone who’s ever cooked on an old wood cook stove like mama had, knows you never touch a stove tops ‘eye’ without a lid lifter. The same goes for pot lids.

A trivet is also good thing to have. It’s a cast iron circle with nubby legs on it to set your hot pots on. It prevents leaving burn marks on your counter tops.

Lastly, get a good strong pair of long handled tongs. I’d recommend getting them at a restaurant supply house or online at a supply site. Forget those ones in the grocery store, they’re too cheap.

Temperature  

How to get the right temperature to cook with.

A fellow cast iron aficionado has a web site that explains it better than I can, so I went ahead and copied his method to explain all this to you.

  “On the kitchen oven is a really cool dial. I turn it to 350 and trust that the oven will heat up to and remain at 350 degrees. I put in the food, set the timer, and go do something productive. When camp cooking in the outdoors, there’s a bit more hit-or-miss.
On my Dutch oven, there’s no dial, nothing to tell me how hot the oven is. Since cooking food at a fairly consistent and known temperature is important for success, there are 3 ways I know of for estimating temperature. Depending on your skill level and how you’ll be cooking, one of them should work for you.

Also keep in mind that there are many environmental factors that will influence your oven temperature. Wind might blow heat away; colder air temperature, higher humidity and higher elevation reduce heat generated by coals; direct sunlight makes a black oven a bit hotter. You might consider making an aluminum foil wind shield to place around your oven, but if it is that windy, I would recommend you not have an open fire.”

“Nearly all dutch oven cooking will come out ok if your Dutch oven is about 350 degrees. Some things should be cooked hotter and some cooler, but that’s the temperature for all recipes that fail to include a temperature suggestion.”

Hand test


“Use your hand to feel the heat. Of course, every person has a different sensitivity to heat but this works well for me. Just remove the lid from the Dutch oven and place your hand just above or just inside the oven. Count how many seconds you can keep your hand there before it gets too hot.

 It is about 50 degrees per second counting down from 550, so I just count – “550, and 500, and 450, and 400, and 350, and 300, …”.

Seconds Temperature

1

500+

2

500

3

450

4

400

5

350

6

300

7

250

8

200

“This is my preferred method. It is consistent and detects temperature instead of estimating the amount of fuel. You do release heat so you need to do the check as quickly as you can.”

Counting Charcoal


“Lots of dutch oven cookbooks tell you how many charcoal briquettes to put under and on top of the oven. This is the easiest way to cook since every coal is similar and consistent. If you are like me and use real wood for your outdoor camp cooking coals, it doesn’t help much. Also, different brands of charcoal give off different amounts of heat. But, let’s say you are going to use charcoal…
The normal formula is to use twice the number of briquettes as the diameter of the oven. For a 12 inch oven, you would use 24 briquettes. Depending on the type of cooking you are doing, you need to make the heat come more from the top or bottom of the oven. For example, too much heat on the bottom will burn bread.
To do this, you place more or less of the briquettes on the lid.”


Here is a simple chart:

Baking Most heat from top so bottom does not burn.
Place 3/4 coals on top and 1/4 underneath.
Roasting Heat comes equally from the top and bottom.
Place 1/2 coals on top and 1/2 underneath.
Stewing, Simmering Most heat is from bottom.
Place 1/4 coals on top and 3/4 underneath.
Frying, Boiling All heat comes from bottom.
Place all coals underneath.

Below is a beginners recipe. I recommend trying simple foods at first, especially like baking goods. You can test them out using your Dutch oven inside your kitchen oven. Set to the correct temperature your recipe calls for. Form more recipes, check some of these in this blog. Don’t forget to research more online, there are great recipes folks have posted for your to try. JW

BAKING POWDER BISCUITS*

2 Cup all purpose flour
2 tsp baking powder plus 1/4 tsp baking soda
4 Tbsp butter or shortening
1/2 tsp salt
3/4 cup milk

Instructions: Heat Dutch oven to 400 degrees with 3/4 of coals on top.
Combine flour, baking powder, and salt in bowl.
Cut in small pieces of shortening or butter.
Add milk gradually, stirring until soft dough is formed.
Turn out on a lightly floured board and lightly knead for 30 seconds, enough to shape.
Roll 1/2 inch thick folding the dough over on itself at least four times and cut with open end of tomato paste can.
Place in single layer in Dutch oven.
Bake for 12-15 minutes.

* For these or any recipes, remember to  write down in a log book all your temp and time settings or changes to a recipe for future use.

There is nothing more exciting than showing off your cast iron cooking skills in front of a group of family or friends. When the lid is lifted and that wonderful smelling recipe plows into their nose like a raging bull steam rollers itself into a attention deficit disordered Spanish Matador, you can proudly yell, “Now that’s what I’m talkin’ about!”

Trail cooking for the beginner

Trail cooking. Just the sound of that short sentence conjures up visions of cast iron pots strung over a smoky campfire and an old two gallon coffee pot settled onto a bed of hot coals…  at least to me it does.

I once had a previous post on trail cooking on my now deleted Myspace account. Instead of drawing the folks I had intended it for, somehow it drew the back packers crowd. While I have nothing against back packers, it seemed they had ‘green’ issues with me regarding open fires and meat. Since I and my cooking style didn’t fit their mold of what trail cooking is, I received a number of rude and opinionated comments.  So, hopefully those reading this Heritage and trail cooking blog are more attuned to what I consider trail cooking.

First, unlike the back packing crowd, my idea of trail cooking is not cooking rehydrated pouches of pasta alfredo in micro sized aluminum pans over even smaller Swedish alcohol stoves. If yours is, then instead of acting high and mighty and scowling at you, I want to instead educate and teach you about the wonderful world of cooking full meals outdoors while on the move.

In this post, I’m going to show you some handy items for the beginner trail cook. In other post, I’ll go through other great outdoor cooking equipment, how to use them like a pro and give you cooking tips on stews, meats, veggies, biscuits breads and more.

By the time I’ve finished my different post on these subjects, you’ll have enough information to confidently step into the role as a real trail cook.

But first, let’s look at what trail cooking is and give you a beginners guide to some basic equipment.

   Trail cooking is a method of cooking ‘on the run’.

While some ranch cooks have permanent outdoor fire rings with iron pot hanger bars in place (as shown in picture above), we are going to talk about a short term set up. Trail cooking is similar to camp fire cooking except that when you trail cook, you set up your cooking process in a way that you make and store a bulk amount of ingredients for future use while on the move. I’ll explain.

If you are making cowboy beans each night, you would not start from scratch each time you made them. Instead, you would go ahead and prepare a bulk amount of soaked and boiled beans that could last 2-3 days.  Such things like vegetables and spices are not included in the bulk amount being cooked as they are added as each days meal are made.  After the bulk amount of beans are boiled up, the amount you need for future meals is then separated and stored for another days meals. The trick is to store them correctly to inhibit them from turning rancid on you. Boiled beans for instance can be drained fairly dry and stored in cloth sacks for a day or two more with no ill effect. By doing this, you no longer have to do daily overnight soaks and then boil them at each meal until they’re soft.

Sour dough biscuits and breads are another part of the meal that should be set up for multiple days meals. The sour dough starter is made in bulk and a certain amount is then drawn off and added to each batch of fresh dough.

The whole idea of trail cooking is that you can move your camp yet easily set up and quickly start cooking once stopped.

The Chuck Wagon was a portable kitchen that traveled ten to fifteen miles each day.

First things first.

 First the fires. I use two different fire set ups depending on the way I’m cooking and equipment I’m going to use. One is the teepee and the other is the log cabin or criss cross method.  Each fire starts with a center of very flammable material called tinder. This can be paper, or carbonized cloth.* around that material can be loosely placed cardboard, dried grass etc. Then covering that are loosely placed twigs from pencil to finger thickness. (Loosely placed is the prime word here.) From this point you can decide what type of fire you wish to cook on and how big you want it to be.

The first is the Teepee fire. This is a fire that concentrates the flame and heat to a single point located in the center of the fire. Placed on end with all its upper tips meeting in the center above and around the tinder fire, you again start with thinner branches or split wood. Each layer of wood becomes thicker until your pieces are 4-6 inches in diameter. Leave a small opening in the side that leads directly into the center of the tinder area. Using a twig with paper or dried grass wrapped around the end of it, light it and place it into the tinder. Add split wood or logs as needed. This is the quickest to start and hottest form of cook fire. An evening campfire is usually a teepee style.

The second is the criss cross or log cabin fire. Start again with the same tinder method as the teepee fire uses.  Similar to building a cabin with Lincoln logs, build a four square structure using pencil thin twigs,  making sure to lay each twig on the end of the twig next to it. When the height is just above that of your tinder fire place a row of “roof” twigs (pencil to finger thickness)  loosely across the top, like a roof. Place another loosely built wall of twigs and thin branches around the original cabin making sure you leave an entry way intact for lighting your tinder. Each wall of surrounding “Lincoln logs” should be thicker until they reach a 4-6 inch thickness. After lighting, this fire is meant to burn down into a hot burning coal bed. Add to the fire to increase the intensity of the hot coals by laying consecutive thin and thick pieces of firewood flat across the fire being sure not to add too many too quickly or you could smother your fire. As mentioned, by building this type of fire, a very thick, hot and long lasting bed of coals are made.

When you deem the fire is ready, just rake the coals somewhat level.  you can place your cooking equipment, and certain foods directly onto the coals. This type of fire has many uses. It provides a flatter surface for Dutch ovens, frying pans, coffee pots and other equipment that cannot be hung over the fire.

                                                                             

The basic grill.  There are again two types of grills I use. One is the above pictured stationary grill on legs and the second is a great little adjustable grill shown further down. I’ve even seen folks use old oven racks as grills as shown below.

The best way to use a flat grill without legs is to set it on top of two large opposing logs with the fire in between the two logs. This not only holds the grill level and in place but reflects the heat into the center of the fire. Rocks can also be used but never use rocks taken from the water, they can explode when water that has soaked into the rock turns into steam.

The adjustable grill. This is my favorite all purpose grill. It’s mounted on an iron rod hammered into the ground and held in place with an attached clamp. Being mounted on the rod allows the grill to be easily moved up and down and rotated away from over the fire. No more burning heat hitting your face when trying to remove your cooked food. Just rotate it 180 degrees away from the fire.

It will hold most frying pans, coffee pots or you can cook directly on top of it. Potatoes, corn on the cob and even hot dogs, burgers and steaks cook easily on it. It dismantles and can be stored in its flat box. This inexpensive trail cooking tool is a must in my book.

Finally, there are some optional pieces of equipment that are real handy if you are serving up food for a crowd but not necessary if you’re just a handful of hungry folks. I’ll go into further detail on these pieces of equipment in an upcoming Dutch Oven post. Below I’ve posted some pictures of these. They include a four legged Dutch oven cooking set, a coffee tilter and pot hanger. Other minor but handy stuff to have on hand are long handle tongs, a long handled basting brush, a iron lid lifter and gloves. I do not recommend using leather as heat transfers through leather quickly. Instead, I use Kevlar oven gloves.

With the increased interest in self sufficiency and return to heritage cooking, trail cooking is an important skill to learn. Many web sites have great recipes for this type of cooking and give great tips.  If anything,  a few tries will sharpen your outdoor cooking skills and give your ego a boost when you cook up a storm of great tasting meals for your friends.

* How to make Carbon cloth. Take a 4-6 inch flat can that has a screw on lid on it. Using a nail, punch a hole or two in the top of the lid. Place some pieces of old cloth (6″ X 6″) into the can and screw the lid back on. Place the can over a campfire. You will see smoke coming from the vent holes. When smoking stops, remove the can and let it completely cool down. Once cool, unscrew the lid and you will find pure carbon cloth. It is very flammable when struck by a match or spark and can be safely kept right in the can you baked it in.

(Some photos were blatantly stolen from Google images. What? You think that horrible picture of the hot dogs on the oven rack is me?)

Cast iron cookware, the Cooks Holy Grail

Back to basics, returning to the best.

I now own three complete sets of cookware. First is a conglomeration of non stick pots and pans. Second is my cherished Tramontina Stainless Steel cookware and third… is the holy grail of all cookware, my mixed set of Cast Iron.

The first two I could live without, the third I couldn’t. I called it a mixed set, here’s why. I show little allegiance to name brand. In fact, most of my cookware is so old that if it ever had a name, I’m sure by now the company is long out of business. Many of them are well over 100 years old. The reason I chose each one individually is due to the quality. Even new pots and pans have flaws in them. They may not show but if you look closely at the rim and see a slight difference in thickness, this is a flaw. It will not heat evenly. Now other metallic pans are stamped out or extruded or as in cast aluminum, made with steel dies that cannot deviate in size. They are theoretically perfect.

Cast iron pots and pans are made using a method ages old called sand casting. A box of oily black sand is used to make the pans impression in. Top and bottom.  They put the two halves together, then molten cast iron is poured into the cast box. Once the impression is filled, the box is broken in two and the sand, along with the freshly cast pan, is poured out. The sand is recovered and reused. The pot is then inspected for flaws of any sort and sent for further finishing. A reputable cast iron cookware company has much higher standards of quality than most imports. Those I stay away from, no matter the brand. Another I don’t cotton to are ones with an enamel finish. What’s the point of these? You’ll never obtain the taste of true cast iron cooking with enamel cookware.

So how do you know if a pans any good to buy? In this rare case, name brand does help. Be aware of specialty pans made for famous chefs or merchants. They are usually a cheap import or lesser quality line made by someone else. Think about this, what qualifications do Emeril, Paula Deen or any other celebrity chef have that qualifies them to have their name cast in cookware? None! So don’t get roped into buying some junk cookware because some celebrity stuck their name on it.  I have seen some horrible import cookware on the market with great looking packaging. Remember, you will not be using the beautiful looking packaging to cook with.

A few brands I actually give my two thumbs up on are these. The old, no longer made McClary’s, Older, Griswold and Wagner’s (the later two now owned and manufactured by the American Culinary Corporation. I recommend only the  pre-takeover Griswold’s and Wagoner’s since rumor has it the newer ones made by ACC are made in China and are of a lesser quality. Many of the older lids always had dimples on them for self basting. Lodge cookware (Probably the best made today and are made in America and are my #1 choice for new cast iron cookware), Then there is Browning ( very nice set, lids are excellent, made for the outdoors. Most likely an import but well made) GW Gear (these are OK but they come with a worthless wooden storage crate that many times arrive in pieces. Lids are good though and casting is acceptable, most likely an import)

Some I’d stay away from are. Bayou Classics (cheap import), Stansport ( Chinese import, casting marks and handles are questionable but the dutch oven seems good), Buffalo tools (Import, cheaply made) Most any famous chef brand and unfortunately even Cracker barrel. This is because they cast their name on the bottom causing uneven heating.

Things to know about cast iron cooking and care.

1-      Quality. Scaling is NOT normal. A properly cast and finished pan will not scale if pre seasoned correctly. Look for how well ground out the mold marks are. See if the lid fits snugly and look for thin spots on the rim. Don’t overlook the handle, it should be smooth, even in the hanger hole.

2-      Pre seasoning. Cast iron is the original non stick cookware. Once it is seasoned, nothing sticks to it. Follow the manufacturer’s directions if purchased new. Many are now being sold as “pre seasoned”, that’s all fine and good for the first time cooking, but continue to season the pan as if it were not pre seasoned. To season;  Wash pan in mild dish detergent and dry completely.

Pre heat your oven to 225 degrees. Then using lard, shortening or the least desired vegitable oil, lightly coat the entire pot, inside and out.

Place the pot in the heated oven for 15 minutes. After 15 minutes, increase the oven temp to 500 degrees and bake for 45 minutes. Remove when finished and allow it to cool. When cool, the pot should not be sticky, if it is then either too much oil was used or time and temp were too low. Reheating at 500 degrees for another ½ hour should solve the problem. If the pot is an antique or rusty, clean it very well, even using steel wool and a mild detergent, then season twice in a row.

3-      Cleaning. Never, ever, place cast iron in the dishwasher to be cleaned. Only a mild quick cleaning followed by an immediate drying is ever needed. I know of many cooks that simply wipe out the pot with a damp towel then returned to the fire for 1 minute to dry. Re-season by simply wiping a fine layer oil on it. If heavy cleaning is needed then you should re-season it using the oven method. The secret to forming the non stick surface is to allow a build up on the interior of the pot or pan. By wiping with a damp towel and drying it afterward using heat, will begin the buildup. Some of my frying pans, to my best judgment, have never had anything done to them but a good wiping out. I said before, some of my cast iron cookware is over 100 years old! If scrubbing is needed, use a mild detergent and a nylon scrub brush, never metal chore boys or Brillo type pads. If you cook outdoors, you can simply heat the pan until the stuck residue burns into a char. Then just wipe out the char using the damp towel again. Cast iron can crack or warp so never place a hot pot or pan in cold water, let it cool first.

4-      Cooking tips. Before using, wipe a teaspoon of oil into the pan before pre heating. Then pre heat to warm it up before placing food in them. Never place frozen or very chilled food into cast iron, doing so will cause the food to stick and burn. Soups and watery foods do not require a preheated pot but still wipe a bit of oil in them first.

5-      About Dutch ovens and frying pans. When looking at frying pans, any over 12” should have an opposing handle of sorts opposite the long handle. It may be just a 1” cast nub or a formed loop handle, either works since you’ll never grab cast iron bare handed anyway. Use a lid lifter or pot holder in removing the lid. I am against using the leather gloves so many trail cooks use because leather will hold and transmit heat, causing severe burns. I opt for a heavy cotton or Kevlar cooking glove. Dutch ovens come in two styles, flat bottomed or with legs. Flat bottoms are made for stove top or oven cooking. They can be used over a campfire if they are fitted with the wire hanger handle and work well on electric stove tops.The lids fit as either a normal pot lid or come in the depressed lid style, either works well. Dutch ovens with legs are made for open fire cooking only and will not work on electric stove tops. To use, place the pot directly on top of a bed of coals, then heap coals on the lid, doing so acts to completely submerge the pot in heat. The lid has a depression made in for this purpose.

Cooking with cast iron sounds like a bit more work, but what you put into cooking is what you get back out. Some of my 100 year old pots and pans are still releasing flavor from cooks long gone up to the big Chuck wagon in the sky. Cast iron cookware rarely if ever changes and are for the most part, passed down from generation to generation.  While I do own other cookware, those will most likely never hang from my children’s pot racks, they’ll be sent off to Goodwill. My eldest son has already laid claim though to my cast iron cookware when I too start cooking at the Heavenly Chuck wagon.